Doctor Basu

“He’s at it again!”   Muriel Hornbellows announced angrily.  “Half past seven on Sunday morning!  There’s no peace!”

Burton Hornbellows groaned and pulled a pillow over his head.  His wife’s obsession with their neighbour’s DIY activities was more irksome to him than the sound of hammering that vibrated through his bed frame.

True, since Doctor Basu had moved into their quiet Plushbrough street peace had been a much rarer commodity.  The Doctor’s neighbor concluded that his complete makeover of the little terraced house had to end eventually, so they tolerated the sawing, the grinding, and endless deliveries from lorries, even the ones that disgorged complete wagons-full of concrete through the good doctor’s front door.  From the evidence of splintered floorboards in his backyard they deduced that he had filled his old cellar and laid the ground floor to concrete.  This despite publican Harry Bugle’s observation that, if the four lorry loads of soil leaving the property were anything to go by, the depth of the cellar must have been increased rather than filled.  There was the ironwork – a substantial load of steel joist – after delivery of which Basu’s windows flashed with sparks from acetylene cutters for a month and a half.  Then, finally, the roof.

The original roof had been veiled by scaffolding and green tarpaulins from the day the doctor arrived, and everyone assumed that the old one had been beyond redemption, in keeping with their own experience because every roof in the terraced road was composed of old slates, and almost all of them leaked.    So that was the explanation, wasn’t it?

Muriel Hornbellows was unconvinced.   “Why don’t t’ Planning Department do nothing?”  She complained.  “He must be doin’ thousands of illegal fings in there, as we can’t see!”

In fact, the Planning Department had done something, in the person of their local officer, Barry Muntjac, who performed one of his surprise visits to the house one May morning.  Doctor Basu answered his knock.  “Make an appointment,”  The doctor advised him.

“I don’t have to make appointments,”  Barry retorted.

“Talk to your superior,”  Said the doctor.  The door slammed shut.

To be fair to Mr Muntjac, he did approach the County Planning Officer, but the result gave him little satisfaction.   Resources, his superior told him, were scarce at the moment, and a small matter of a purely internal property renovation, which was obviously desperately required, was of little concern.

There were reasons for the doctor’s neighbours to bite their tongues, not least of which was grudging admiration, for he was working alone at what everyone supposed was a major building project behind those closed green curtains.  Also, as their local medical practitioner, Doctor Basu had a certain power over them.  Should they be too vocal in their complaints, they feared repercussions.  He ran a National Health Service surgery; dissenters could be struck off.  

And anyway, it had to end soon, didn’t it?

After four years, it hadn’t. 

“Look at ‘im!”  Muriel Hornbellows muttered as an aside to her neighbour Clara Gusset as the slightly built, bespectacled doctor shuffled deferentially past them on the far side of the street.  “I don’t know where he gets the energy!”

“Well, he do save a lot in prescriptions what he don’t write.”   Clara opined.  “An’ there’s a powerful lot as were regular customers for ‘un afore he came, who’s on no bugger’s list but St. Peter’s now.” 

“That’s true.”  Muriel acknowledged.   “He’s lost another one.  Susan Garflute passed on t’other night.”


“I’m tellin’ you.  One day, like that..”  Muriel made a vertical gesture with her hand.  “Next day…”


“She only went to see him for a boil on her neck.”

In spite of its small population, Plushbrough had become a Klondike for the undertaking profession, and three new parlours had opened since the benevolently smiling Doctor Basu had taken over medical practice in the town.   His snap diagnoses were the stuff of legend – invariably inspired, and frequently wrong.   His keen diagnostic eye identified the only epidemic of Dengue Fever ever to strike an English country town, though he had to stoutly resist a visiting second opinion’s verdict, that of common influenza.   When Albert Sloopwater developed sickness and a cough the local water company had to counter Basu’s diagnosis of cholera, an exercise that cost them several hundreds of thousands of pounds.  

The wheels that rolled towards Basu’s nemesis may have ground slowly, but their destination was obvious.  At the time of Muriel Hornbellows’ Sunday morning observation a public enquiry into Basu’s competence had been in progress for some time.  There was an inevitability about the verdict it would reach, and everyone felt sure his days were soon to be numbered.  Yet there were sympathetic voices: his gentle charisma had built him a substantial vote of support and public sympathy.

“Yer house must be coming on, Doctor dear!”  Hettie Boosey challenged him, as he eyed a large television in the window of TV World speculatively.  

“Nearly finished!”  Was Basu’s smiling response.

“I expect it’ll look marvellous when it’s done.”  Hettie was never shy of an opportunity.  “You’ll have to invite me round, dear.  I’m good with wallpaper, you know.”

Speculation was rife.  Whenever the doctor was known to be in surgery, a small gathering would form outside his home, probing for a peek between those thick green curtains.

“It’ll be minimalist, certainly;”   Gwen Hawkes opined.  “He’s a minimalist man, you can see that, can’t you?”

Jack Spencer was of a different opinion:  “More of a brutalist approach, I’d say.  And industrial – yes, industrialist!”  Jack saw himself as a man with a superior artistic sense.  “All that concrete, you know.  And a lot of sheet metal he had delivered the other day, didn’t he?”

While the British Medical Association minutely scrutinised Doctor Basu’s unusual record, his neighbours watched his remodelling efforts with equal intensity.  But everyone missed the two large lorries that slipped quietly up to his house at three-thirty one morning.  They made their deliveries silently, they departed unnoticed. 

The next morning Doctor Basu found two visitors waiting at his surgery.   One wore a police uniform.

“We’ve been looking into your past, Doctor.”  The suited man from the BMA told him severely.  “And you haven’t got one, have you?  No medical training, no qualifications, and no previous experience as a general practitioner; although we suspect you are the Mr. Banarjee who passed himself off as a consultant cardiologist at St. Bretts in 1998.  Anything to say?”

Doctor Basu had nothing to say.  His patients were sent home and so, after lengthy questioning and a successful application for bail, was he.   It had been a momentous day – not least because the scaffolding that hid his house’s new roof had been peeled away that very morning, and the roof it revealed, an apex of gleaming steel, was spectacular!  But events had moved on, and the eyes that now accused him with such determination barely glanced at it.  Instead, they were focussed entirely upon Doctor Basu.  They watched him disdainfully as he entered his front door, locking it behind him.

“I told you so!”   Hettie Boosey said triumphantly.

“I knew right from the start!”  Said Clara Gusset.  “He’s a wrong  ‘un, that ‘un, and no mistake!”

“Maybe us’ll get some peace now!”  Muriel Hornbellows said, gratefully.

She was mistaken.   Enjoying the midnight silence and wrapped in sleep Muriel did not witness the opening of that steel roof – no-one did.  No-one saw as it spread its steel sections like the petals of a gigantic flower.

The rumble began at two o’clock.   Merely a threat at first, like distant thunder, it grew to an earth-shattering, ear-splitting crescendo.   What at first was a familiar vibration in Burton’s bed frame became a shaking of epic proportions, so violent Muriel could not keep her feet to get to her window – and this alone was fortunate because had she done so the white light would surely have blinded her.

Mortar loosened, glass splintered, chimney stacks tottered.  The parked cars in the street were tossed into the air.  From the eye of the cataclysm in a final orgy of quaking noise the rocket, with Doctor Basu seated in a capsule at its head,  rose; slowly at first, but with ever-increasing velocity.  The little houses that had flanked the residence of the doctor were flattened like a procession of dominoes, and Muriel, along with Hettie, Clara, Jack, Gwen and many others did finally find the peace they had been seeking.

So the undertakers of Plushbrough rubbed their hands together, ready to reap the good doctor’s final harvest, and alone of all in his street, Burton Hornbellows – saved by his iron bedstead – stood gazing dumbly at the vast crater that was all that remained of Doctor Basu’s house.  It took him a while, shocked as he was, to understand the meaning of the concrete pit within that crater, but at last he found an answer.  He raised his eyes to the heavens and he almost laughed.

No-one else would attest to the logical explanation for that huge explosion,and no expert eyes were present to watch the trace of Basu’s rocket as it ascended through the night sky.  The catastrophe was identified instead as a bomb that had exploded prematurely, and Basu, though his remains were never found, dismissed as a fanatic.

A strange radar signal remained on screens at several tracking stations in the northern hemisphere for some days, but it was slowly fading and, with other more important projects to pursue, was soon forgotten by the scientific community.

As for Basu, I cannot tell you – I simply don’t know.  Fanatic he was, of a kind, whose whole life had led him towards one moment of glory between Earth and the stars.   That his crude, almost comic home-built launch platform actually worked is beyond doubt.  Did he survive?  If he did, for how long?  Is his new surgery on Mars diagnosing Dengue Fever among a new list of little green patients there?  We’ll probably never find out.  But, sorry as I am for those whom his extreme focus destroyed, I sort of like to think of him in his module among the panoply of the stars, polishing steam from his glasses so he might better see Jupiter or Neptune, with his face set in that gentle, respectful smile.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:  Features Image:  Muhammed Hassan from Pixabay

Milky way:  Free Photos from Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nine      Silver’d in the Moon’s Eclipse

The story so far: 

While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her.  When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.

Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury.  He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder.  Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

Joe’s heart skipped several beats.  The voice was Charker Smith’s.  The presence was Charker’s.  He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.

“It’s just Davy Hallett.”  He said as evenly as he could.  “I’ve known him for years.”

“All same – bastards.  You aren’t moved on, then?”

“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.”  Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated.  “I grew up here, you know?  It is sort of my home.”

“Ah.  You and those brothers of your’n.  I had a brother once, Palliser.”

“I know.”  Joe responded solemnly.  The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney.  “I’m really sorry, Charker.  I still remember that day very well.  There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”

“So you said at the time.  ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see?  He were a good driver, were Rod.”

Joe sighed.  “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death.  I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”

Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride.  His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable.  “You’re right.  I aren’t convinced.  ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”

There was no point in protest.  “I got that.”  Joe said.

Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained.  “That’s right, boy.  Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”

“In a minute, Charker.  I’ll come in a minute.”

“Collect yerself, eh?  Have a think about it.”  Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head.   Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.

He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road.  The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.

An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning.  He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket.  “It’s from London.”  He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation.  “Can I use the ‘phone later?”

As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen:  “That was a solicitor’s letter.  He was worried.  Did you see his face?”

Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room.  He read it three times.  Then he went to the telephone.

“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, darling.”  Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now.  “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”

Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm.  “Nothing but time.  What was it you wanted, aunt?”

“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “

“Up at the top of Church Lane?  The ‘nobs on the hill’?  Of course I do.”

“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied.  Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently.  I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”

“I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”

When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.

“I’ll just change my shoes.”  He said.  And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him,  secure in his pocket.

He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet.  To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.

“Keep off my grass!”

“Don’t come in!  The dogs will savage you!”

On the right was Hallows Cottage.  How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?

“Can Tom come out?”

“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear.  It’s ‘Thomas’.”

She died before he left for London.  Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning.  Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.

House after house, memory upon memory:  the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now?  The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.

There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows.  Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other.  Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy.  Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous.  When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years.  The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof:  there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him.  He could see himself living there.

Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly.  Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.

Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road.  To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care.  Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick.  Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.

All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting.  For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants.  She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position –  leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.

It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring.  With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang.  A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.

“Oh, thank you.  So you must be Joe?”   Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused.  She added with a touch of mischief:  “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”

“Almost,”  Joseph answered.  Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter.  At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.

“You look awfully warm!  Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”

“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.”  Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.

He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie.  He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.

That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.

“Yer been avoiding me, lad?”  He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting.  “I brought the car down, ah?  Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”

Joe threw on a coat.

“Nice!”  He approved.  “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”

“Sold it.  Emma made me see sense.  Family man, see?”

Joe was surprised and showed it.

“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing.  But we got plans, ah?  Been trying for a while, now.   I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.”  Tom grinned toothily.  “Women, ah?”

Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly.  The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes.  Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically.  “Goes well, du’n ‘er?  So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”

Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.

“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe.  Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that.  You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?”  Tom asked.  It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech.  The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.

“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”

“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’.  I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney?  I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk?  Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation.  Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on?  Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”

At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern.  Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.

The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days.  Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home.  He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.

Tom said:  “We got to get you a car, boy.  There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”

This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed.  Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.

Tom did his best to distract.  “That old Ford Pilot of yours?  That’s up Pettisham way.  Emma seen it there, t’other week.  Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”

But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart.  Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend.  Tom had known him for too long.

“Good car, ah?  Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un.  Would have served yer well in London.”

Joe changed the subject hurriedly:  “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”

“She’m dead, I know that.”  Tom pursed his lips.  “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”

“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much.  All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”

Tom laughed.  “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind.  There were always stories.  She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”

“Never heard of him.”

“What?  Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall?  You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy!  Ben was a witch, that’s what!”

“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”

“No!  No!  I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to.  Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions.  No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around.  He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet… ask Aaron Pace about Violet.  He’ll tell yer some tales.  Whether they’re true or not, though…”

There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever.  He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s.  Wouldn’t start, no matter what.  Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor.  Seen them John Deeres?”  – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there?  She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer?  Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”

Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close.  He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought:  but on the way home Tom disabused him.

“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe?  See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no.  You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”

They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury.  Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond.  Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine.  The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.

“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see?  But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”

He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass.  A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants.  Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew.  He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say:  that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.

When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia.  He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many;  that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.

After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.

“Well!”  Tom said, staring at his steering wheel.  “There’s a tale!”

Joe nodded.   That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.

“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?”  Tom said.

Why did it slip out?  Did he want it to?

“No.  She was married to someone else.”

For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed.  For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing.  Then:

“‘Was’ Joe?”

The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.”  Joe muttered.  “Marian is dead.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit:  Lucas Huter on Unsplash




Hallbury Summer -Episode Three: Michael

The Story so Far…

One summer afternoon in the village of Little Hallbury Violet Parkin is murdered,  the same afternoon Joseph Palliser returns from the city to visit his Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia Masefield, in whose home he and his two brothers were raised. 

Joe is intent upon staying for a while, but he seems unwilling to discuss his London years.  To avoid interrogation he seeks his childhood haunts on the local common, where after startling a horse and its rider, he meets his erstwhile best friend, Tom Peterkin. Tom is now married to Emma, the girl Joe left behind when he moved to the city.

After an awkward encounter with Emma, Joe and Tom seek refuge in the local pub, where the subject for discussion is Jack Parkin’s arrest for his wife’s murder.  A drinker at the bar, Charker Smith, is less than happy to see Joseph walk in…

“You got some nerve, showin’ up ‘ere, Palliser, I’ll give ‘ee that!”  In the close confines of the bar, Charker Smith seemed even larger than Joe remembered.  The elder of an unlikely pair of brothers, it was said of Charker that he had inherited all of the family’s muscle, while his younger sibling, Rodney, had been bequeathed most of the brains.

“Leave ‘im alone, Charker!  He’s just visitin’. That’s all.”  Seeing Charker ready to square up, Tom Peterkin sprang to Joseph’s defence.

“Slummin’ more  like.”  Charker responded.  “I thought you was too big-in-yer-boots for us peasant folks these days, Palliser.”

Joe grinned deferentially:  “Yes, well, you know….”

“Ah.  I knows, right enough!”

“Keep thee lid on, Charker!”  Tom warned.  He turned to the landlady, “Let’s ‘ave a couple of your specials, Dot.”

Dot banged a warning fist on the counter.  “Now then you two, keep ut peaceful!  Gawd, let ‘un be, Charker!  He’m the first new customer I’ve had in ten year!  Here we are, m’ dears.”  The bar supported three massive, black handled pumps:  she mauled the first of these with the determination of an all-in wrestler, conjuring thick, warm beer from the ground like a healing spring.  “Special for thee, Tom dearest.  That’s one and eight pence, now.”

There were four other drinkers at the bar:  Aaron Pace, immediately recognisable because of his stoop, Pat Farrier,  Rob Pardin and  Albert Regan.  Each studied their beer after the manner of country folk, issuing their own quiet greetings without raising their eyes.

“You’ll be losin’ another customer soon, Dot.”  Rob Pardin piped up in his strange, cracked voice.  “When they locks old Jack away.”

This brought no more than a chuckle from Patrick Farrier.  Aaron Pace nodded in solemn agreement.

“Weren’t no cust’mer of mine!”  Dot responded quite sharply.  Everyone knew Ned Barker, the landlord, had thrown Jack Parkin out years ago.  “Not many pubs round here’ll miss ‘im, I’m afraid.”

“All the same…”  Patrick said.

“Ah, there’s no folk ‘d wish  this on ‘im.”  Aaron agreed sagely.  “’Twere your Janice found ‘er, wasn’ it, Bert?”

“Aye it was.  In the dairy.  She’m proper shocked, too.  Said she never seen nothin’ like it.  Violet’s arms was pinned against the stall with pitchforks.  Whoever done it must ‘ave been proper strong.  An’ she were cut open something ‘orrible.”

Patrick shook his head.  “Jack couldn’t never have done that.”

“Trouble is;” Albert Regan  said, “Jack was there.”

“He were at work weren’t ‘er?”  Charker asked.

“Should ‘a’ been, but he weren’t.  He ‘ad a row with old Williamson and took ‘isself off in a stonkin’ mood, ‘pparently.  He went ‘ome, round about the time Violet died, they say.   Bit after, he goes down The ‘Orse in Fettsham, calm as you please, and that’s where Davy Hallett found him.”

This brought a straggling chorus of disbelief.  Gradually the conversation drifted away from Jack Parkin, only returning now and again to reiterate the same opinions that, no matter how bad it looked, Jack could not have murdered his wife.

“Your brother done well for hisself, Joseph lad.”  Pat Farrier remarked.  Joe had to agree.

“Reck’n he’ll get ‘lected?”

He certainly reckons he will.”

“Not that ‘e’ll do much good fer us, mind!”  Rob Pardin muttered.  “Us’ll soon get forgot, once ‘e’s rich and powerful, like.”

“He’s fairly rich now,”  Joe said.

“They don’t do no good fer us country folks;”  Albert Regan chipped in.  “Picks on us when they wants more money, that’s all they do.”

This brought a general murmur of assent.

“Well, you never knows.”  Aaron Pace said.  “Might  do, might not.  Stranger thing’s ‘as ‘appened.”

Little by little, in spite of Charker’s hostile stare which had fixed on him from the first moment, Joseph found himself absorbed in this conversation:  he and Tom Peterkin ordered two of Dot’s home-made pasties  “That’s it, Dot, kill ‘im off for us!”  and ate, and drank, their way into the afternoon.  There was much to learn, about the years of nothing between the day he left and this day, the day he came back.  The people here, these people – yes, even Charker Smith, whose dislike he bore with equanimity – were his people:  people he grew up around; people who knew him in ways he barely knew himself.  When the time came, it would be hard to leave.  Why had he ever left?

“Oh, my lawd!”  Cried Dot.  “Who’s farted?”

This brought the laugh, and the accusations of guilt, it always did.  It was fundamental humour, perhaps not even funny, but it was the stuff of life.

By the time Dot tolled the hour at two o’clock, a great deal of her ‘Special’ had found its way into Joseph.  A couple of times it had been necessary to displace one lot to make way for another, and he had to make the trip through the unmarked back door which everyone knew led to the toilets.  On the second such visit he had followed Aaron on a similar mission, suffering the jibes of the others for his mistake.

“Mind yer arse, Aaron!”

“Keep yer back to the wall, lad!”

The yard beyond the unmarked door was a paved rectangle about eight yards by six, and the facilities no more than an outhouse at the further end.  To reach them, picking your way through Ned’s chickens, you had to edge past Ned’s Morris Oxford estate car, which was always parked, not to one side of the space, but right in the middle.  This of itself was a performance for Aaron Pace, whose bent back and stiff right leg, the lingering reminders of a horrendous accident many years since had to be turned and manoeuvred. On the side where the toilets were situated there was a high wooden gate, beyond which was the Pettisham road.  Opposite this across the road was a further gate, a five-barred affair, and beyond that was Ned’s orchard.

Everyone knew about Ned’s orchard, of course, in spite of his ludicrous attempts at secrecy:  everyone knew the apples were inedible, but everyone knew they were not meant for eating.  For on the far side of the yard, on the driver’s side of the Morris Oxford, there stood a stone-built shed which had once been a couple of loose boxes.  The door to this shed was always locked because within it was Ned’s cider press.

“He still does a bit of scrumpy, then?”  Joseph asked  Aaron.

Aaron nodded.  “Well, he’s got the trees, hasn’ ee?  There’s special nights, now.  Cons’able  Hallett caught ‘im a few year back.”

They were about to go back inside.  Aaron Pace stopped for a moment, as though a thought had suddenly struck him.  “Violet.”  He said.  “That’s a bad business, isn’ it?”

“Yes, a bad business.”

“’Tweren’t Jack.”  Aaron said.  “Couldn’t ha’ been.”

Joseph met Aaron’s eyes and saw the sincerity there.  “What makes you so sure, Aaron?  He was there, after all.”

“Violet.”  Aaron said in measured tone.  He opened the door, adding over his shoulder as he limped back into the bar:  “Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”

Indoors, the conversation drifted on, and since this was not too long before Dot’s bell called ‘time’, Joseph thought little about what Aaron had said.  Later, though, it was to haunt him, and he would sleep less that night for thinking of it.

In the meantime, there was afternoon.  Crippled by beer of a quality he had not imbibed in more than a decade, Joseph fell back in one of Aunt Julia’s garden chairs to allow his wounds to heal.   Upon the paved area at the rear of their house (Owen refused to call it a ‘patio’) in hazy sunshine this was no great hardship, however, and he raised no objection when Benjy settled fatly onto his lap.  He passed some time whistling a new phrase to an interested starling – something he and Michael had been wont to do in earlier years.  Was it this simple trick that brought Michael to his mind?

Three months had passed since that fatal car accident which had brought Joseph and his brother Ian to Little Hallbury.  Children of their tender years adapt to their surroundings quickly.  Memories of their mother and father were already fading, becoming buried beneath layers of new experience.  Ian, particularly, accepted his new guardians and was learning how to make them love him.  The word ‘manipulate’ would have had no meaning for him then, yet he was already a master of the craft.  And the past had left no obvious scars, at least none of a kind that Joseph would notice:  oh, there was the little nervous laugh which ended every sentence,  the sudden way his mood could change – but nothing untoward:  nothing which could be listed as ‘damage’.

Julia spoke to them in a tone the brothers had identified as her ‘serious talk’ mode.

“Now I want you to listen carefully, both of you.”

They adopted their ‘listen carefully’ faces.  Only Joseph would know that Ian was trying hard not to giggle.

“Michael will be joining us this weekend.”

What reaction had there been?  None.

“The point is, children, he was very badly injured.  He is still in a lot of pain, and he won’t be quite…”  She drew breath.  “He won’t be the little brother you remember.  We have to look after him.  We have to take care of him.  He needs all your love.  Do you understand?”

“We’ll try, auntie.”  Ian, very solemn.  Ian, always knowing the right thing to say.

Michael came on the Saturday afternoon, and, in all fairness, Julia had done her best to prepare his brothers for what would follow – a stranger in a wheelchair, a broken creature, a deformed thing?  None of these.  No – other than a pronounced limp Michael bore few physical signs of the terrible ordeal he had endured.  But inside?

Later, much later, Joseph would learn the truth of that terrible night.  How Michael, sole survivor, had to be cut from the wrecked car:  of the trauma he had suffered, pinned across the decapitated body of his mother, drenched in her blood.  Had he or Ian known these truths that Saturday perhaps they might have behaved differently?  Perhaps; but they were, after all, just children.  As it was, Ian saw Michael’s injuries, heard the dry rasp in his voice, and he began to laugh.  Aunt Julia stepped forward to chide him, would have stepped between Ian and his brother – if Michael’s cracked face had not broadened in an answering grin.  The pair started waving mock punches at each other, so Aunt Julia could only protest that they take care – they just laughed the more, and play-fought the harder.  Joseph?  He could only watch.  He could not laugh, or share their joke:  he could not join in.  Marginalised as always, he hid in the corner of the room and let slip the tears he felt – for Michael?  Well maybe, but maybe also for himself.

In fact it took not weeks, or months, but years for the true state of Michael’s hurt to manifest itself.  They were years in which he and Ian became the fastest of friends, the closest of brothers.  Although right from the day he returned to his family it was acknowledged that Michael’s brain damage had left him ‘a little slow’, and Ian was already showing signs in his education of a brilliant intellect, the two seemed to spark a special kinship in each other:  they shared a room and they spent most of their days together.  Joseph slept alone in the room next door, and although he listened to their laughter at secret jokes and their muffled play through the partition wall, he rarely joined in.

In the village, whenever the local boys made a show of picking upon Michael, Ian was fiercely protective.  Even when Michael went to remedial school the bond did not appear to loosen.  At their own secondary school, Ian and Joseph, in different years, went their separate ways but each evening, when Michael came home, Ian lit up once more, and they were instantly close.

The change, when it came, was a thing of high drama – not entirely unexpected, though, because from the age of eleven Michael was a pressure cooker waiting to explode:  as his body changed in the natural way of things, so his mind began to unhinge:  he began to harbour suspicions, keep secrets:  to plot and to plan.

Michael came into Joseph’s room one Friday night; very late.  Louis, Julia’s feline companion at the time, was lying upon the bed and Joseph was playing his records – his ‘78s’ – quietly so as not to be heard downstairs when Michael, staring at him darkly, lifted the needle from the deck.

“We’re getting out of here.”  He muttered, sotto voce.  “You coming?”

Joseph was bemused.  “What, now?  Who’s ‘we’?  Where are we going to go?”

“Ah!”  Michael said.  “Tell you when.  Soon, is when.  Ian and I.  We’re going over to live with grandma.  That’s where.  See?”

“You and Ian have arranged this?  Why do you want to go to Grandma’s?”

“You don’t know, do you Joey?  Her – her downstairs – she’s a devil’s child, her.  She’s plotting!  Get away before it’s too late, Joey!”

“Devil’s child?  Aunt Julia?”  Joseph repressed a laugh.  “No, Michael.  Anyway, why do you want to go to Grandma’s?  We haven’t seen her in years!”

“Her!  Don’t you see?”  Michael’s posture was becoming peculiar, he was crouching nearer and nearer the floor, his stiff leg pushed out behind him, his arms and hands spreading in a smoothing gesture, as though he were stroking some invisible animal.  Louis got up with a disdainful look, stretched and stalked from the room.

“She’s keeping Grandma away.  She’s hidden us.  But we can see it.  We know!”

“Well I don’t think she is.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Aunt Julia, and I certainly don’t think she’s in league with Satan.  No, you can count me out, Mikey.  Go to bed.”

Michael shook his head, then he backed out of the room, wide-eyed as if he were outfacing something which made him afraid.  He said nothing more.  The following morning on the school bus Joseph asked Ian if he had agreed to Michael’s escape plan, but Ian just laughed.

“He hasn’t said anything to me about escaping.”

There it might have rested.  Certainly Michael mentioned nothing further upon the subject of absconding, but it was the first of many schemes, the nature of which became more and more outlandish.  Aunt Julia would feature somewhere in them all.

And then there was breakfast on Ian and Joseph’s School Sports Day.  This was in the July of Michael’s thirteenth year, when Julia had declared that they would ‘all’ – including Michael – attend.  Perhaps Michael feared he would be singled out in his brothers’ company – it was not his school, after all, and his often very apparent eccentricities were conspicuous in unfamiliar crowds.  He had been announcing little plots for some time, all designed to keep his Aunt from dragging him to the school sports.  Now the day had come, and after an innocent question elicited her determination that they should go, Michael began behaving very oddly indeed.  His head lowered to the table, so his chin was almost touching the cloth, and he began glancing to right and left as if he were a beast wary of breaking cover, arms outspread, fingers splayed.

“You shouldn’t go.”  His voice was deepened, an obvious attempt at a growl.  “My brothers would not like that.”

Ian did one of his suppressed giggles.

“Don’t include me, then!”  Joseph said brightly:  “I want you to come, Auntie!”

Julia, realising that he referred to neither Ian nor Joseph, was clearly disturbed.  “Who are your brothers, Michael?  Why won’t they want us there?”

Michael slid from the chair, crouching.  “They won’t want because I don’t want!  I command them – I command the pack!”   He slunk close to the corner of the table, an imitation; Joseph was sure, of how he imagined a wolf would behave.  Michael had flirted briefly both with Wolf Cubs and the local Boy Scouts  (briefly because they made it fairly obvious they did not want him.  There had been an evening visit to Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia by the ‘Pack Leader’ – Brian Holland – the subject of which was never discussed with either Ian or Joe).

“Pack, dear?”  Julia asked.

“Wolves!”  Michael announced with high drama.  “Giant wolves with yellow eyes and slavering fangs!”  He looked up at Ian as if he expected support.  Ian just giggled.   Michael screamed,  “My wolves!”

There was silence.  The boys’ uncle Owen had already left for work.  Julia seemed at a loss for anything to say.  It was Joseph who eventually stepped in, calmed Michael down, and manoeuvred him up to his bedroom.  Neither Michael nor Julia went to the school sports that year.   Instead, at Julia’s request, her husband returned from work.  Together, she and Owen set about the difficult task of acknowledging that Michael’s pain was too great for them to share.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit:  Dekorasyon on Unsplash.